Productivity as an Employed Software Engineer

15 Nov, 2023 · 5 min read · #productivity #employment

There has been a lot of talk about employee productivity in recent days, with some Indian tech entrepreneurs asking people to work 70 hours a week. Productivity is not the sole purpose of life. Health and relationships that we value are more important and productivity must never come at the cost of these. With that out of the way, here is my view of productivity and ways to improve it as a software engineer working as a full-time employee.

What Is Productivity?

Labour productivity is the value produced per hour of work. As an employed software engineer, the net income is the best measure of value produced. After all, this is the value our employement produces for ourselves and our dependents. So productivity = net annual income / hours spent towards employment, for an employed software engineer. When optimizing productivity, it is important to calculate the numerator and the denominator accurately.

Net income is not just total compensation - taxes. We must also account for other costs incurred entirely towards employment. Costs like commute, eating out if you could have cooked otherwise, and higher housing cost incurred to reduce commute time must also be considered.

Similarly, time spent towards employment is not just the working hours mandated by the employment contract. A daily commute of 2 hours to a job that requires working from office 5 days a week, is a massive opportunity cost. That is 10 hours a week that could have been spent learning or on activities that improve your health or relationships.

Improving Productivity

With the above definition, it is obvious that working 70 hours a week instead of 40, will not increase productivity. In fact, if the additional hours do not come with a proportional increase in income, your productivity will fall.

The best way to increase productivity as an employed engineer is working for the right employer. Here are some traits to look for in an employer before deciding to work for them.

Pays at the Top-End of the Market

This is an obvious one. After all income is the numerator in the productivity equation. Some entrepreneurs and companies are better at deriving value from the work of their employees, than others. A company that has not even kept up with inflation in its compensation of new graduates, is not likely to be one of them.

Companies that pay more usually also hold a higher bar for the engineers they hire. This shrinks the pool of potential employees and results in them paying higher to attract those who fit. The bar is defined by their interview process, which is often publicly available. In many cases, the companies’ recruiters are happy to share their interviewing process with candidates and even accommodate time to prepare, when scheduling interviews. Use resources like to identify companies that pay more than what you currently make. Understand their interview process, prepare, and move to one of them.

Know Your Value in the Market

On a related note, as an employee, your skills are the commodity you’re selling in the market. It is important for a seller to know the current market price of their commodity. Companies tend to pay their long-term employees less than new hires. Data shows that people who change jobs more frequently earn more.

Unfortunately employers prohibit disclosing compensation details to colleagues. While resources like are helpful, they are not specific to the individual. The best way to know the current market value of your skills is putting it up for sale. Interview with other companies every 4-5 years and get offers to understand what the market is willing to pay. Even if you’re content at your current job in all other aspects, this will help you negotiate the next time your salary is up for review.

Helps You Learn

Most skills of a software engineer can be learnt and practised on one’s own time. However there some, like people management, which can only be learnt at a job. These skills also tend to be valued more and attract a higher pay.

When evaluating offers with the same pay, pick one where you’re likely to learn skills that cannot be learnt on your own time.

Values Your Personal Time

An employer that makes you work 70 hours a week, even with proportional compensation, is not worth the opportunity cost. It is disastrous if this employer also doesn’t provide learning opportunities. 30 hours spent learning new skills, after a 40-hour work week, is much more likely to improve an individual’s productivity, than a 70-hour work week filled with what they are already good at. The 75% additional income, assuming there is proportional compensation for the additional 30 hours, is not worth it.

Some believe that personal time is not important for young professionals without a family. Value from skills gained earlier in ones career can be realised over a longer period of time. So personal time to gain new skills is more valuable to young professionals than those closer to retirement.

Allows Diversification of Income Sources

Be it 2008 or 2022, what is certain in the tech industry is that employees can be let go in a moment’s notice. Some employers provide a severance pay while many just force employees to resign, at least in India. It is critical for employees in such circumstances, to diversify their sources of income.

An employer that doesn’t prohibit their employees from building additional sources of income using their skills as a software engineer, with reasonable restrictions to protect their own business, is more desirable that one that prohibits it.

Why Not Quiet-Quit?

Strictly from the productivity equation, quiet quitting will not hurt productivity. But it is important to not lose sight of the long-term when optimising for the short-term. Doing just enough to get paid will hamper growth and consequently productivity in the long-term. Quiet quitting is not in an engineer’s best interest, when there is more to be gained by going the extra mile.

Having said that, it is important to go the extra mile in the right direction. Just working longer to deliver more of what you’re already good at, is not very helpful beyond short-term gains in performance reviews. It is much more fruitful to seek out responsibilities that expand your comfort zone and produce work of higher value.

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